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Austin ISD Faces Unpopular Options To Fix Budget: Close Schools, Redraw Boundaries

Montinique Monroe for KUT

It's time for the Austin Independent School District to do something drastic to improve its financial situation, a member of a task force studying its budget says.  

On the table: closing schools and changing boundaries.

“There are some really key things that the district can look at, and they’ve known about and quite frankly they’ve just avoided dealing with for decades now because they were just politically difficult,” said Robert Thomas, one of the chairs of the Budget Stabilization Task Force. “They no longer have that flexibility.”

The district is expected to run through its reserves in the next few years if it doesn’t change its spending. To try to prevent that, the district gathered a group of 30 community members who spent the last five months reviewing the budget and looking for ways to save.

There are a few reasons why AISD is in this financial situation. Its enrollment continues to decline as students leave for charter schools or to attend schools in more affordable districts. Because districts receive money from the state based on how many students are enrolled, AISD is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At the same time, AISD is paying Texas hundreds of millions of dollars in recapture, a system where cities with high property wealth hand over some of its property taxes to the state.

Redrawing school boundaries could help with the enrollment problem. Right now, many schools, mainly in East Austin, are under-enrolled. Even if a school building is only half full, the district must pay utility bills as if it were full. Redrawing boundaries could bring students from different parts of the city into these under-enrolled schools.

The district's budget the last few years has included a deficit, and it's using its reserves to cover the difference. Thomas said closing schools and changing boundaries could make a huge difference.

“If they will seriously and honestly do that, they could substantially wipe out, if not completely wipe out, their budget deficit,” he said.

Thomas said the task force will also encourage the board to evaluate all the district’s academic programs and determine each one’s costs and benefits. He said the task force understands these conversations are hard, but said they're necessary at this point.

At a Board of Trustees work session last week, member Yasmin Wagner told Thomas she expects the task force to recommend controversial cuts to the budget.

“I don’t want you to feel constrained by politics,” she said. “Instead, I want you guys to feel unshackled by that and know that this board member and other board members sitting on this dais fully support doing the right thing for the long-term health of the district, even if it's not the popular thing right now.”

Thomas said the task force members didn’t just focus on areas to cut; he said most want to see the budget restructured so there's more money for teacher pay and benefits.

He said his group aims to send AISD its official recommendations by Dec. 14.

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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